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Jeb Bush, Arne Duncan, and the Bipartisan Scourge of Education Reform

Several months ago Jeb Bush publicly praised President Obama for selecting Arne Duncan as education secretary.  “I think Arne Duncan has done a good job,” the former Florida governor said in this CBS interview. Perhaps to return the favor, Duncan is now scheduled to deliver a keynote address at Bush’s fifth annual  Excellence in Action Summit later this month in Washington.

There’s no real surprise in the Jeb and Arne show. Duncan has spoken at earlier Bush summits. Obama himself stood on a stage with Bush — the architect of Florida’s damaging corporate-style education reforms, which have become a model around the country — and called him “a champion of education reform.” This while Wisconsin teachers were protesting for their collective bargaining rights last year. And I wrote a few days ago that Bush’s summit had also booked as a keynote speaker John Podesta, founder and chairman of the Center for American Progress, who was president Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and and co-chair of Obama’s 2008 presidential transition team.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with Democrats giving speeches at Republican-led events. That’s not the problem. This is: the stubborn refusal of Democratic leaders who embrace the kind of school reform efforts linked to Bush to look at how those efforts actually work. In most cases, they don’t. Many public schools around the country surely needed improvement before Jeb’s brother, then-President George W. Bush, started No Child Left Behind and launched the era of high-stakes standardized testing, but the Bush-led reform movement has only turned many classrooms into test-prep factories and led to teachers being blamed for things over which they have no control.

Jeb Bush and Arne Duncan don’t agree on every aspect of school reform — Duncan opposes vouchers and Bush can’t get enough of them, for example — but there appear to be more points of convergence than disagreement. The continued public embrace by Democrats of traditionally Republican corporate-style reforms blurs the important differences. And make no mistake, the Duncan Education Department has taken the standardized-testing obsession of No Child Left Behind to new heights. It proposed regulations that would rate colleges of education in part on how K-12 students being taught by their graduates perform on standardized tests. It was bad enough when the department pushed states to link standardized test scores to teacher evaluation — over the objections of assessment experts who say it just isn’t reliable or fair. In  Florida, the standardized test-based school accountability system  is such a mess that the Republican governor, Rick Scott, has suggested Florida kids are being tested too much.



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Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats stay silent on the biggest problem facing public education — the fact that 22 percent of American children live in poverty, which doesn’t include those who live just above the official poverty line in families who can’t afford to meet their basic needs.


The press release from Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education reveals a refusal to acknowledge reality. Here’s what it says about  Duncan:

Prior to becoming the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan served as the chief executive officer of  Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the longest-serving big-city education superintendent in the country. Among his most significant accomplishments during his tenure as CEO, an all-time high of the district’s elementary school students met or exceeded state reading standards, and their math scores also reached a record high. At high schools, Chicago Public Schools students posted gains on the ACT at three times the rate of national gains and nearly twice that of the state’s. Also, the number of CPS high school students taking Advanced Placement courses tripled, and the number of students passing AP classes more than doubled.

Any effort to make it sound as though Duncan succeeded in improving Chicago’s schools is an exercise in futility. Some things were said to have improved, but as my colleague Nick Anderson wrote in this story back in 2009,  gains in state test scores during Duncan’s tenure were discovered to have been inflated because Illinois had relaxed passing standards and Duncan’s closure of low-performing schools often shuffled students into comparable schools, yielding little or no academic benefit.


Sometimes a little less bipartisanship would be welcome when it comes to education policy.

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss writes the Answer Sheet blog for the Washington Post.

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